BREAD has always been a crucial food -- basic sustenance to many societies and a reason for revolution in some. The greatest change in American baking since the invention of sliced bread in 1928 came in the early '60s, when bread emerged as a political symbol. Nutritious loaves made with such ponderous grains as brown rice and millet took on ideological--as well as food--value. Bread was clunky, but good for you.

When the dust settled, Americans were nothing if not bread-conscious.

Three major bread books--by James Beard, Bernard Clayton Jr. and Judith and Evan Jones--have marked the time since then, and then there are all the minor ones, too. As prose grew prolific, bread became more elaborate. It was studded with herbs and spices, kneaded with pure'es and seeds, turned into flower pots and baked in frying pans. Sourdoughs were carried from San Francisco around the world and back.

Eight years ago, the Women's Community Bakery was established here, and now the sales of its whole-wheat loaves have reached 800 a day, which doesn't include its variety loaves--herb, onion and granola. Its bakers have learned what it takes to blend good nutrition and great taste. "You have to put more muscle into it," says baker Janice Ososky of whole grain loaves.

Still, the bakery produced "corn and grain" bread (with cornmeal and bulgur) for five years "and it was always really flat," according to Ososky. It turns out that additional grains interrupted the gluten formation, and it's gluten in wheat flour that stretches to make the bread rise. Now they knead it longer, because kneading develops gluten.

Mainstream America, too, has realized that nutrition-packed loaves were not the ultimate goal in baking; bread must taste good, too. So the pendulum has swung center--home bakers have learned to compromise.

Bread luminaries such as Beard helped bridge the gap between nutritious and delicious by inspiring home baking and making "health bread" sound as enticing as "cream biscuits." There are plenty of ways to make tasty breads good for you, Beard says, by adding oatmeal, cracked wheat and even buttermilk. "I very often add wheat germ," he says. "I think it adds flavor and quality."

Judith Jones, co-author of "The Book of Bread," comments on the evolution, saying, "Some of those health people tried to pack the whole meal into bread," but points out that if you overload the loaves with heavy grains, "you're going to get something that isn't what bread should be. I think you need balance."

Researching their cookbook, she and her husband created "a lot by taste and a lot by impulse." While nutrition "is really not a factor" in their cooking, she says, "I know the loaves are going to be nutritious because there are good things in them." The Joneses are very liberal with their addition of fruit and vegetable pure'es (apple, quince, pear, carrot).

Ultimately, she says, their goal was to make breads that "behaved well". But Jones recognizes that esthetics don't preclude nutrition. One day, while making cheese, she used the leftover whey as liquid for bread. "It made it very risey. You knew you were getting something wonderful and you're not throwing anything away."

Baking principles are key for those who make the tasty, nutritious loaves of the '80s, says Merle Shogren, a research scientist at the Department of Agriculture's grain research center in Manhattan, Kan. "Almost anything that you add to a bread flour is going to reduce its efficiency at what it does best. You could get so many nutrients in a loaf of bread that you would get a brick bat," he says.

The trick, he says, is to balance small additions of nutrition-packed ingredients with the wheat flour. It's best, he says, if such things as soy flour and wheat germ make up no more that 10 to 12 percent of the bread, in order to keep loaves more bread-like and less brick-like.

For those inclined to increase the proportions, Shogren gives tips that reinforce nutrition concerns.

* Egg yolks "improve the crumb," although nobody knows why. Egg whites apparently don't effect the quality one way or the other. And if you add a couple of whole eggs, the nutrition will improve.

* Vitamin C improves the texture and the volume of the cooking bread, and you just need a tiny bit (like .0005 ounce per pound of flour--much too small to measure accurately in the kitchen). Although some of the nutritional value per se might be lost during cooking, you can add vitamin C in the form of ground-up vitamin C tablets, tomato juice or potatoes.

* Malt (for those who want to make sugarless bread) provides food for the yeast by breaking some of the wheat starch into smaller particles. You can buy malt in some health food stores, or make your own from sprouted barley or wheat. The sprouts need to be dried and ground, and added in small quantities to the bread dough.

* Mashed potatoes make the yeast grow like crazy and give the dough wonderful volume.

Clive McCay, the creator of Cornell formula bread (white flour enriched with dry milk, soy and wheat germ) maintained the proper balance between nutrition and socially acceptable white bread. In the 1930s, when he developed his soy-studded formula, sliced white bread was the rage. "People were more interested in the ease of preparation and not really interested in nutrition," says his widow, Jeanette McCay, from her home in Englewood, Fla.

His formula provided fuel for the underground nutrition movement through the '40s and '50s--Jeanette McCay sent out recipes from her home. But in the last few years, she said, "more young people and many new bakers . . . have discovered that food that's good for you can taste good."

Even her husband, though, was prone to the "more is better syndrome." He'd add extra soy flour and brewers yeast to his Cornell doughnuts. "Those were pretty potent at times," says McCay. SUPER LOAVES (3 loaves) 1 cup wheat germ 2 teaspoons salt 2 packages active dry yeast 2 tablespoons honey 1 pound sweet potatoes 1/4 cup vegetable oil 3 cups unbleached flour 5 cups whole-wheat flour, approximately

In a small bowl, combine wheat germ, salt and 2 cups of warm water. Set aside. In another small bowl, combine yeast, honey and 1/4 cup warm water. Stir to dissolve yeast and set aside. Peel sweet potatoes (if desired), slice and steam in 1/2 cup water until soft. Mash them with a fork or ricer, stir in the oil and cool. Put cooled potatoes in a large bowl (with water) and add yeast. Stir to blend. Mix in wheat germ combination. Add white flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring well after each addition. Add whole-wheat flour, 1 cup at a time, until the mixture is too stiff to stir. Turn onto floured work surface and knead well, 15 minutes or longer. When the dough is firm and no longer sticky, transfer to a well-oiled bowl and turn to coat it with oil on all sides. Cover with a towel and allow it to rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled. Turn it out and knead it again for about 5 minutes. Divide into thirds and place in greased 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pans. Cover with a towel and allow to rise for an hour. Place in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 300 degrees and cook about 45 minutes. BASIC CORNELL WHITE BREAD (2 loaves) 3 cups warm water 2 packages active dry yeast 2 tablespoons honey 3 teaspoons salt 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 7 to 9 cups unbleached flour 1/2 cup soy flour 3 tablespoons wheat germ 3/4 cup nonfat dry milk

Grease 2 9-by-5-inch bread pans. Combine water, yeast, honey, salt and vegetable oil. Set aside. Combine 6 cups of unbleached flour, soy flour, wheat germ and dry milk. Stir 3/4 cup of flour mixture into liquid. Beat vigorously, about 75 strokes. Add remaining flour mixture, first with a spoon and then with your hands. At first the dough will be sticky, but should become firmer as you work it. Turn dough onto a floured board and knead, working in 1 to 3 cups more flour, to make a smooth dough, kneading 10 to 15 minutes. Place in oiled bowl, grease the top of the dough lightly and cover with a towel. Allow it to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour (a fingerprint should remain when dough has risen enough). If the room is cool, place bowl in another of very warm water. Turn onto floured surface and knead briefly. Set aside for 20 minutes. Divide into 2 portions, shape into loaves and place in pans. Allow them to rise about 45 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes. From "The Cornell Bread Book" GEORGE LANG'S POTATO BREAD (1 large loaf) 2 or 3 potatoes, or enough for 1 cup of mashed potatoes 1 package active dry yeast 4 cups unbleached flour 3 to 4 cups whole-wheat flour 1 tablespoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons caraway seed

Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their skins until tender. Drain (reserving water), peel (if desired) and mash while they are still warm. Allow the potatoes to cool. Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water, mix well with 3 tablespoons of flour in a large bowl and set aside for 30 minutes. Add enough water to potato-cooking liquid to make 2 cups and add that to yeast, along with salt and seeds. Add remaining flour and potatoes and mix well. Turn out on floured board and knead until dough is elastic and supple and has great life--12 to 15 minutes. Shape into a ball. Oil a bowl, put the dough in it and turn the dough to coat with oil. Place in a warm spot for 1 to 2 hours or until doubled. Remove the dough, punch it down and knead for 4 or 5 minutes. Shape into a round loaf and place in a buttered 12-inch skillet. Let rise about 30 minutes. Brush with water and make a deep incision in the form of a cross in the center. Bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour, or until it is browned and sounds hollow when tapped. Adapted from "Beard on Bread."